Our Industry

Securing the Grid: It's Important

By Jimmy Sneed

Have you ever thought about the availability of utility power? The availability of utility power is a concern when designing critical facilities. When evaluating sites one of the first things we consider is utility power to the facility. We determine if the capacity to run the facility is available. If not, how long will it take to get the power? During this process we also look at reliability and redundancy in the utility power distribution. Can we get power from two separate substations? Historically how reliable is the power distribution in the area? Can we achieve the required separation from the two feeds to the facility?

While many of our clients have considered microgrids to control their own utility power most still depend on these existing utility power systems. Whether that power comes from tradition fossil fuel power plants (60%) or more green alternatives like nuclear (20%) and renewables (20%), our national electrical grid still delivers the power.


According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States national electrical grid consists of approximately 7,300 power plants, 200,000+ miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers.  Three major regions distribute these systems:

  • The Eastern Interconnection in states east of the Rocky Mountains
  • The Western Interconnection from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains
  • The Texas Interconnected System


The national electrical grid is elaborate. And with a large grid, one high-priority challenge we’ve seen is cyber-attacks on these systems, which have taken down oil pipelines, water plants, and more. But another vulnerability that has long been ignored and is beginning to make the news is physical security.

While most of the power plants receive top-level security, the downstream infrastructure receives different attention. Most of us have driven past an electric utility substation enclosed with a chain link fence with the equipment inside entirely within view. We want to help everyone understand why this could lead to significant issues.


On April 16, 2013, a physical attack occurred on the Metcalf substation located in Coyote, CA, which lies near San Jose. This substation provides power to Silicon Valley. The attackers shot 17 transformers attempting to bring down the substation. They had detailed knowledge of exactly where the vulnerable points in the system were.  The attack lasted approximately 19 minutes and caused $15 million in damages. The FBI said the event did not meet the level of being labeled domestic terrorism. However, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, consulted with military experts who agreed that it appeared to be a “professional job” given the lack of fingerprints and other physical evidence. Despite the FBI’s stance, Mr. Wellinghoff stated the attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred”.

Interestingly in 2012, one year prior, the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a declassified United States Department of Homeland Security study about the vulnerability of the national electrical grid.  In that report, they highlighted how vulnerable the grid is, particularly high voltage (HV) transformers. These transformers only make up about 3% of the total transformers in our grid, but they carry 60-70% of the nation’s electricity. There are 30 of these critical HV transformers nationwide, and disabling as few as nine during peak usage could cause rolling blackouts coast to coast.


That brings us to December 3, 2022, when two Duke Power substations in Moore County, NC, were broken into and shot up by an unknown number of attackers. These attacks knocked the power out to 45,000 customers. The substation power was fully restored on December 7, four days later.

The investigation of the event in Moore County found that there had been at least six attacks on the electrical grid in Oregon and Western Washington since mid-November. According to information obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and KUOW Public Radio, at least two of the attacks were like what occurred in North Carolina.

Whether or not we believe these attacks are individuals or a more coordinated effort to disrupt our grid, we must take the threat seriously. While maintaining cyber security is vital, there is a clear need for improved physical security.  As professional engineers, we must understand all the threats to our clients and country.  We must effectively communicate all known risks and be prepared to offer solutions. Our team is committed to providing such solutions to all known risks. If I can help find solutions for you, please email me at jsneed@wbengineering.com.